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Study Finds that Leaving Cert Subject Choices Are the Main Reason for the Gender Gap in STEM

Subject choices play a huge role in why more male students choose to do STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses than female, according to a study published on March 6.

The ‘Understanding gender differences in STEM’ study found that students studying chemistry and physics were more likely to do STEM subjects, while choosing accounting and economics decreased the chances. This data was collected through the Central Applications Office (CAO) on students who did the Leaving Certificate between 2015 and 2017.

It found that there was a 22 per cent gender gap between students who put down a STEM course as the first choice on their CAO. Roughly two-fifths of male students listed a STEM course as a top preference. Girls were just as likely to choose a science course as boys but there was a significant gap in the numbers choosing technology, engineering and maths.

The study notes that 40 per cent of students attend single-sex schools which may limit subject options. It found that 91 per cent of boys attend schools which offer physics compared to 84 per cent of girls. Physics students are 20 per cent more likely to do STEM.

However, Judith Delaney who co-authored the study said: “We have shown in the paper that even within mixed-sex schools, where subject availability is the same for both males and females, that the same pattern of gender differences in subject choice emerged.”

Delaney suggested that biological factors or the influence or teachers, parents and peers may be the reason for the gender differences in subject choice.

Delaney recommends inviting female speakers from STEM-related careers into secondary schools.

“I think it is important for girls to know that there are females that work in these sectors and to understand more about what the job actually entails,” she said.

Although the study explains that 13 per cent of the gender gap is down to subject choice it concludes that the reasons for the other 9 per cent need further research to understand.